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Mark Shields: Obama Guilty of Rhetorical Grave-Robbery

President has a habit of quoting Ronald Reagan as an authoritative voice on public policy

For more than a half-century, American liberals, resistant to swelling defense budgets, have regularly quoted Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning delivered on Jan. 17, 1961 — just three days before he was to leave the White House — in his farewell address to the nation: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

For nearly that long, anti-government conservatives for whom the cure for all problems, from declining Sunday school attendance to chronic halitosis, lies in just one more round of tax cuts — especially capital-gains cuts — have invoked the words of Democratic President John F. Kennedy (who did, in fact, endorse cutting the top marginal tax rate on individuals to 65 percent from 91 percent): A rising tide lifts all boats.

In politics, this practice — of using the words of a leading figure on the Other Side politically to advance Your Side’s own case or cause — is known as rhetorical grave-robbery. Speechwriters and politicians in both parties do it. And, as of this writing, while it frequently infuriates partisans in the party of the president or politician whose words have been lifted, it is not a punishable offense.

When it comes to the practice of rhetorical grave-robbery, President Barack Obama is a repentant recidivist. On Nov. 2 in a speech, Obama quoted approvingly a predecessor who had argued that the bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost, defining it as an investment in tomorrow we must make today. Obama told his audience the president who made that argument was Ronald Reagan.

Just a couple of weeks earlier in Orlando, Obama endorsed the chief executive who had strongly criticized the tax codes that made it possible for a millionaire to pay nothing while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary — that’s just crazy. It’s time we stopped it. Obama then asked the crowd, “You know who said that?” before telling them, “That was Ronald Reagan.”

Seeking approval from a Dallas gathering, Obama reminded his listeners that taxes are much lower now (in 2011) than they ever were when Reagan was president. At another Texas event, a roundtable discussion, Obama enlisted a supporter of his own position on the highly charged immigration controversy: Reagan understood that immigration was an important part of the American experience.

Remember last summer’s confidence-sapping standoff between the White House and congressional Republicans over raising the nation’s debt ceiling? Again, the incumbent Democrat left it to the Gipper to make the argument: Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates and higher unemployment? I think I know your answer.

Who was the authoritative voice Obama cited to indict the Republican-endorsed plan to privatize Medicare for being neither serious or courageous? Reagan’s own budget director, that’s who!

During the past year, Obama quoted Kennedy once and President Lyndon Johnson not at all. By its regular rhetorical grave-robbery, the Obama White House has made clear: Reagan, alone, is both the most compelling authority it can summon in any public policy debate as well as the standard by which this Democratic administration seeks to be measured.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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